Louisville coach Charlie Strong has said all of the right things about the way his Cardinals have started this season, now 9-0 and No. 9 in the latest BCS standings.
But he is not engaging in coach-speak when he says the Cardinals have to be prepared for a huge test in Syracuse.
The Orange, one of the more erratic football teams in the Big East, have proven they are capable of taking down Top 25 opponents at home when they cut out all of the self-inflicted mistakes. We present Exhibit A: a 49-23 shocker last year over the No. 11 West Virginia Mountaineers.
"West Virginia fell into a hornet’s nest and Syracuse played very well," Strong said Monday on the Big East coaches' call, in one of his more candid comments in recent weeks. "In this league, each game, each week is very competitive. Not only Syracuse, but a lot of teams are up and down. So we just have to make sure when we go in there we’re prepared because we know we’re going to get their best."
Louisville, meanwhile, has let opponents hang around -- for a quarter or even an entire game. The Cardinals did much better last week in closing out Temple, but found themselves tied at 17 in the second quarter. Their previous two games came down to massive fourth-quarter comebacks.
Strong knows all of this. And yet, his young team has found a way to win and get off to the best start in school history. I asked Strong if he believed something special was developing with his team.
"It’s special in that we have nine wins so far, and it’s special that we’re just trying to continue to improve and it’s special that we have a limited group of seniors on this program," Strong said. "They’ve had a chance to put their imprint within this program. You look at it -- this school deserves it, been playing football for 94 years and it’s the first time we’ve had a chance to go 9-0."
So does that mean he has allowed himself to think about the possibility of going 12-0?
"The league is so competitive, you just have to make sure that we go prepare to go play each week and not get full of ourselves," Strong said.
Syracuse has played much better at home than on the road this season. In four games at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse has six total turnovers -- including three in its past three games -- compared to 11 in its five other contests. It has allowed an average of 321 yards of offense at the Carrier Dome, compared to 408 yards on the road.
This will be the final home game of the season for the Orange, and the game is about as close to a must-win as you can get. Syracuse (4-5, 3-2), beset by countless mistakes in its five losses this season, needs to win two of its final three games to go back to a bowl game.
But coach Doug Marrone says he has not really considered whether there has been an increased intensity or focus with bowl stakes on the line. He cares more about cutting out the errors.
"I’ve always looked at it from week to week, with increased energy or focus, never looked at it from the overall picture," Marrone said. "It just distracts you from the task at hand. At this point when I say frustration, I’m talking about coaches and players. We’re frustrated about the mistakes we make. We have to concentrate on that on a daily basis."